News: CJ Exclusives

Democrats, others, file lawsuit in state court to overturn legislative districts

Incoming Supreme Court Justice Earls represented plaintiffs in another redistricting lawsuit

N.C. Supreme Court Justice-elect Anita Earls, then an attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, spoke with reporters in July 2017 outside the U.S. courthouse in Greensboro. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
N.C. Supreme Court Justice-elect Anita Earls, then an attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, spoke with reporters in July 2017 outside the U.S. courthouse in Greensboro. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

The results of this month’s legislative elections haven’t been certified. Yet Common Cause, the N.C. Democratic Party, and 22 individual plaintiffs are seeking a court order to overturn some of those General Assembly districts.

The parties filed the lawsuit Tuesday, Nov. 13, in Wake County Superior Court. The lawsuit challenges legislative maps drawn in 2017 and seeks new voting maps for 2020.

“Only North Carolina Democrats would file a lawsuit to overturn districts that they just won,” N.C. Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said in a written statement.

“Partisan gerrymandering is an existential threat to our democracy,” plaintiffs claim in the lawsuit. Republicans “egregiously rigged the state legislative district lines to guarantee that their party will control both chambers of the General Assembly regardless of how the people of North Carolina vote.”

Among other state constitutional claims, the lawsuit says Republicans’ 2017 court-ordered redistricting plan, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, violated North Carolina’s Free Election Clause because it gives Republicans a partisan electoral advantage.

Plaintiffs argue the N.C. Constitution prohibits partisan gerrymanders and provides greater equal protection guarantees than the U.S. Constitution. No matter how the U.S. Supreme Court resolves partisan gerrymander questions under the U.S. Constitution, the court should view the complaint under N.C. constitutional protections, toss out the 2017 plans, and order new maps for 2020, they argue.

This is the latest action in a wave of litigation filed in state and federal courts the past several years, all seeking to void or blunt Republican-created voting maps.

Newly elected state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls represented plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, Covington v. North Carolina, which involved racial gerrymandering.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday raises complaints heard in previous court cases. But it focuses mainly on the claim Democrats aren’t represented fairly in the General Assembly. Democrats cast almost as many votes statewide as Republicans yet they win a lot fewer seats in the legislature.

“The maps are impervious to the will of the voters,” the lawsuit says. It noted Democratic candidates won a majority of the statewide votes cast in the 2018 elections, but Republicans still won a substantial majority of seats in each chamber.

“The Speaker’s office is focused on serving the North Carolina voters this endless stream of litigation seeks to circumvent,” Joseph Kyzer, spokesman for defendant House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, told Carolina Journal.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, a co-defendant, did not respond to a request for comment. Other defendants include the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and its individual members.

The lawsuit says General Assembly Republicans will control the next round of redistricting. State and congressional boundaries they draw will be in place for the succeeding 10 years. Although Democrats broke the Republicans’ veto-proof majority in the Nov. 6 general election, the governor has no veto power over redistricting in North Carolina.

“This perpetuates a vicious cycle in which representatives elected under one gerrymander enact new gerrymanders both to maintain their control of the state legislature and to rig congressional elections for ten more years,” the suit stated.

Plaintiffs didn’t contemplate the possibility Democrats could win majorities in 2020.

“Only the intervention of the judiciary can break this cycle and protect the constitutional rights  of millions of North Carolinians,” the lawsuit says.

In addition to partisan gerrymanders affecting Democrats’ political fortunes, the lawsuit claims Republicans are becoming more ideologically conservative. They don’t vote for the interests of Democratic constituents, and rarely cast crossover votes, denying Democrats the ability to influence legislative outcomes.

The 2017 redistricting plan burdens the plaintiffs’ state-guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of assembly based on their identity, viewpoints, and content of their speech, thus making their votes less effective. Money spent by the Democratic Party on candidates for messaging is less effective because of the gerrymanders.

The lawsuit further alleges the 2017 maps reduced the Democratic Party’s representation and ability to elect a majority. That violates plaintiffs’ rights of association by making it more difficult to register voters, attract volunteers, raise money in gerrymandered districts, campaign, and turn out the vote.

Participatory democracy, public funding of elections, and other measures that encourage accountable government are also diminished by the partisan maps, the lawsuit says.